Back in the 1960s the sociologist and theologian Peter L. Berger popularized what became known as Secularization Theory. Looking out at the religious landscape of Europe and North America at that time, evidence suggested two things: firstly, that education, science, and a social safety net led to a drop in religious observance: “secularization;” and, secondly, that introducing more and more pluralism and diversity into a given society reduced the surety among the population that any one region had all the answers, and therefore the various religious groups would begin to lighten up when it came to their own surety: “pluralism.”
We must remind ourselves that Humanism as a movement came into its own in this post-Second World War Period. The first generation of Humanists, in the 1920s and 1930s, had been democratic socialists and reformers; had been interested in building an alternative religious community — religious Humanism.
The second generation had lived through the Second World War. Many — especially Euro-Americans — had benefited from the GI Bill, VHA Financing, and the general explosion of colleges and universities after the war. Their living standards were going through the roof.
Think of the money that poured into major state universities. And the population that grew up around those universities — educated — what at the time was called “upper-middle-class.” Former Protestants, former Catholics, secular Jews. It appeared as if the expansion might go on forever, and that the future was secular.
In the 1990s, Berger recanted his secularization theory. Secularization theory just didn’t pan out. Yes, Europe and North America now experience plurality and diversity in religious thought, but religions have not disappeared. Far from it.
Berger began to realize that, yes, people now hold secular opinions, but as it turns out, people are not consistent in their secularity. No, modernization does not inevitably lead to secularization.
Using applied technology, for example — say a car or a smartphone — does not imply scientific thinking in the user.
Therefore, when we say that “the nones” are leaving religion in droves and are now as large a group as Evangelicals in the US, we must add several caveats:
First off, they are leaving organized religions in droves, but many depend upon traditional religious frameworks when considering some subjects. They are eclectic in what they pick and choose in the religious Whitman’s Sampler, but for most “nones” the go-to box is still marked “religion.”
For instance, consider the people getting on a passenger jet and the anxiety that some people experience. How to deal with the anxiety?
Some swill alcohol in the lounge.
Some read up on how safe planes are.
Some, presumably, do all three.
Here’s what it comes down to: the world will not secularize as many Humanists and freethinkers hoped in the mid-twentieth century. A naturalist worldview and a Humanist life stance will not be the choice for most people.
Far from a replacement for traditional religion, Humanism has become and will remain one alternative among many alternatives on the religious landscape. Therefore, Humanism needs to do some growing up. Fact: this isn’t 1955.
Religious certainty and certitude have been undermined, leading to the religious pluralism we experience today. Furthermore, Euro-Protestantism is not the only choice available now on the landscape. We now have a “free market” in religions, which has led to a diversity of religious expressions.
Still, many if not most people aren’t worried about incompatible or contradictory beliefs. For many, if not most, God’s in his heaven and all is right with the quantum field.